GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There will be times when new Gators men’s tennis coach Bryan Shelton draws on his past to shape his team’s future. He did the same during his 13 seasons as the women’s coach at Georgia Tech.
Shelton’s past offers young college players with aspirations of playing professionally one day ample lessons. He has been where they hope to go.
Shelton, 46, can tell the Gators about how in his very first Grand Slam match in 1989 he stared across the court at the dean of Wimbledon in the 1980s, Boris Becker.
He can tell them about defeating France’s Jerome Potier in his first match at the U.S. Open a couple of months later only to advance to face Jimmy Connors on the Stadium Court at Flushing Meadow. Shelton won the first set against Connors before dropping the next three.
“It’s funny. That year, I didn’t know any better,’’ Shelton said. “I was staying with a friend out on Long Island to get the free housing. So I’m taking the subway in each day. Everybody’s got their limousines and their entourage and there’s me, getting on the subway with people who have been to the match to watch the match, we’re riding together on the subway home.”
There are more stories to share.
Shelton can tell them about winning his first professional tournament in Munich in November 1989 and then gaining more recognition early in 1990 when he cashed a $7,200 check for winning the singles title at the Harbour Island Championships in Tampa.
He can tell the Gators about perhaps his biggest win – beating Andre Agassi at an ATP Masters Series event in Key Biscayne in 1994 – or how he once survived losing 12 consecutive first-round matches.
He can share his story of beating Thomas Hogstedt and Sergi Bruguera at his second Wimbledon in 1990 before losing to No. 1-seed Ivan Lendl, or the time he beat the world’s No. 2-ranked player, Germany’s Michael Stich, in the first round at Wimbledon in ’94.
“I wouldn’t trade those days for the world,’’ Shelton said. “I played some singles and doubles. I had an opportunity to play some doubles with Patrick Rafter. He won the U.S. Open twice in singles.
“But what I say about college tennis and being part of a team: I can’t compare anything I did to what it felt like to accomplish great things with a team. That’s one of the things, if you talk to Agassi, you talk to Michael Chang, you talk to Jim Courier and the others, they’ll all tell you the one regret they have is that they didn’t go to a university.
“They’ve told me that before. I did not experience professional tennis at the level those guys did, but I still got to be there at a high level.”
Shelton turned pro shortly after completing an All-American career at Georgia Tech from 1985-88. He played on the ATP Tour until 1997, winning two ATP singles titles on the way to a 104-137 career record and more than $1.2 million in career earnings.
He reached a career-best No. 55 in the world in March 1992 and added 94 more career wins in doubles play. Shelton’s pro career took him all over the world, to places he never imagined existed when he first became enamored with the game as an 8-year-old growing up in Huntsville, Ala.
When Shelton captured his first ATP Tour title in Newport, R.I., in July 1991, he became the first African-American player to win a tour singles title since Authur Ashe in 1978.
“I was fortunate to be able to pursue a professional career when I finished school,’’ Shelton said. “At that time, there weren’t many that got an undergraduate degree, and then went on to play professionally on the men’s side. I was one of two that were Top 75 in the world during the time I was playing. Patrick McEnroe was the other guy, who went to Stanford.
(Photo: Shelton during pro career/Huntsville (Ala.) Madison County Hall of Fame)
“I felt blessed to be one of those guys who had an education to have that amazing experience to be a college student-athlete and be around 13,000 other kids my age, go that route, and still be able to have a 10-year professional career. My professional career was up and down. I certainly had some great moments and great tournaments and great years – also had some tough ones.”
Shelton’s final Grand Slam event was in 1997 at the U.S. Open. Shelton was 31 and could tell he was undergoing a change within about the demands of life on tour.
“I had no thought of retiring. I was getting a little tired of the travel, but I didn’t say before the tournament, ‘the U.S. Open is going to be my last tournament.’ But I came home, had a couple of weeks off and I was supposed to go to Mexico City for a tournament,’’ Shelton said. “I woke up the morning before I was supposed to fly out – and I just wasn’t ready to go. A few days went by, I realized I was done.”
Once his playing a career ended and prior to taking over the women’s program at his alma mater, Shelton spent time as a professional coach with the USTA, including serving as MaliVai Washington’s personal coach.
Shelton said he sort of entered college coaching by chance and is now considered one of the nation’s best. He led the Yellow Jackets to the 2007 NCAA title and consistently had them in the running for conference championships.
As he begins to settle in at UF, the Gators will learn that their new coach was a pretty good player in his day. A player who once lost 12 consecutive times only to qualify for Wimbledon a little later and knock off the world’s No. 2-ranked player in the first round.
“Through it all you learn a lot,’’ Shelton said of his days as a professional. “You learn a lot about yourself, about life. And through the adversity I went through during the various stages of my career – and certainly the 12 losses in a row was a tough stage – taught me if you keep your head up, keep working hard, keep doing things the right, eventually things will turn in your favor.
“It’s a message I like to give to every student-athlete that I work with, especially the ones that are having a tough time and dealing with some adversity.”